Secret border surveillance: Italy drastically restricts freedom of information

Italian media no longer receive information about their country’s cooperation with the Libyan coast guard. Whether many millions of euros for equipment have been wasted there can now hardly be clarified. It also makes the EU border agency Frontex more opaque.

The Italian government has drastically restricted the right of access to administrative documents. In the future, information on cross-border security cooperation is to be kept secret from the public. A corresponding decree restricting freedom of information was signed by Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese as early as mid-March 2022, reports the newspaper Altreconomia. The reason given is the threat to national security or defense.

Particularly affected is the intergovernmental „border and immigration management“ with neighboring countries. For example, cooperation agreements and technical agreements between the military and police will no longer be issued. Separately mentioned in the decree is information on „problems in border areas.“

Unclear whereabouts of maritime surveillance equipment

Altreconomia is itself affected by the refusal to provide information. Journalists had unsuccessfully requested the release of an agreement for the delivery of three vessels to the Libyan Maritime Police. With another request to the State Agency for Defense Industries (AID), the newspaper asked to see a cooperation agreement signed on October 21 last year, between various Italian border authorities and AID for projects in Libya.

This involves equipment for the Libyan coast guard. The Central Directorate for Immigration and Border Police, which reports to the Ministry of the Interior led by Lamorgese, is responsible for this. Last year, the department sent new maritime surveillance technology to Libya. The EU-funded equipment is installed in containers and is intended to perform functions of a mobile Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC).

In the first stage, the EU approved €46 million for the establishment of such a control center, followed by another €15 million in 2018. It is possible, however, that the funds have been misappropriated or have seeped away elsewhere, because neither the EU Commission nor the EU Council can say where the control center they are financing is to be located. Responsible for managing EU funds to Libya is the Defense Industries Agency AID, which now benefits from the new secrecy decree.

Instruction from Italy also applies to Frontex

The instruction is even said to affect actions carried out by Italian authorities in the context of „international police cooperation.“ According to Altreconomia, the decree therefore also affects Frontex missions. Accordingly, the Warsaw-based EU Border Agency would no longer be allowed to release documents in response to freedom of information requests if they concern Italy. This would further curtail Frontex’s already limited transparency.

Italy is leading two important European missions in the Mediterranean. In Operation „Irini“, EU military personnel are supposed to intercept compliance with UN sanctions on oil exports and arms trade with Libya, and the so-called fight against „human smugglers“ is considered a „secondary task.“

The Italian Interior Ministry is also responsible for the Frontex mission „Themis“ in the Mediterranean. There, too, it is ostensibly about „combating smugglers,“ but the focus is actually on migration defense. In the meantime, Frontex has largely withdrawn ships in „Themis“ and replaced them with manned and unmanned aerial reconnaissance. Boats carrying refugees spotted en route to Europe are often reported to the Libyan coast guard. The force takes the occupants back to Libya and detains them in camps where, according to the German government, conditions are „inhumane.“

Criticism of „secrecy decree“

Details of the criticized cooperation with the Libyan coast guard are already difficult to research. The German transparency organization Frag den Staat, which requested information from Frontex about ships and aircraft deployed in „Themis,“ also learned this. After losing an appeal, the transparency organization was to pay Frontex over €10,000 for legal fees.

With the decree of the Italian Ministry of the Interior, journalistic research is now once again made more difficult. The lawyer Giulia Crescini of the Italian Association for Legal Studies on Immigration criticized the governmental decision in the newspaper Altreconomia as a serious violation of the right of access to information. The now-restricted transparency law for public authorities dates back to 1990 and was supplemented by a citizen participation law in 2013 and a citizen access law in 2016.

„Time and again, and increasingly, European governments and institutions are denying access to migration-related information,“ Luisa Izuzquiza of Frag den Staat commented. „The intent is clear: they want to protect themselves from being held accountable for their actions. The Italian secrecy decree is a serious escalation and must be repealed immediately.“

Image: Italy and the EU support Libya’s Maritime Police with ships, documents on this remain secret (EU in Libya).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.